“My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise, like a permanent vacation. We’re all just out here, sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips, catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we are immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our cancers less fatal, our heartaches less painful? Hell, I haven’t been on a surfboard in 15 years. For the last 23 days I’ve living in a paradise of IV’s and urine bags and tracheal tubes. Paradise? Paradise can go f*** itself.” ~ Matt King, The Descendants
One of the most valuable experiences a film can give the viewer is a sense of shared humanity with the characters on screen. At first, The Descendants, whose main character is a lawyer about to become very rich from the sale of inherited beach-front property in Hawaii, seems an unlikely film in which to find such a connection. As the meme goes, what could it have to tell but first-world problems. Moreover, our protagonist is played by George Clooney, a charming and charismatic actor who can be very entertaining–but rarely convincing as “one of us.” The Descendants, and Clooney’s, great success involves stripping back the veneer of wealth and screen-star artifice and telling a bracingly human story about death and the unsettling disclosures which sometimes surface in its wake.
As the film opens, we learn from the opening narration that Clooney’s wife is comatose from a boating accident. We learn, along with his character, that her condition will not improve and that she will soon be taken off life support in accordance with her will. The rest of the film concerns the fallout from this, and one other, revelation. Clooney’s character–a serious man, it would seem–gathers his two daughters (one 10, one 17) on a Hawaiian island hopping trip in order to come to terms with this revelation, in search of whatever peace might be there.
The strength of the story is in the telling: the script contains recognizably human characters who act unpredictably and without falling into pre-determined categories like “good” and “bad”–even the apparently dumb beach-bum teenager has some meaningful contributions. There is also much to recommend the acting. Clooney shows again that he’s not locked into that Tom Cruise-ian leading man role where he can get by with just a swagger and a smile; and Shailene Woodley, the twenty-year old actress playing his oldest daughter, particularly shines as an unlikely but supportive companion during a time of soul-piercing crisis.
This movie was very meaningful to me personally. At a time when I am tempted to blacklist people who have hurt me through their sins, along comes a film displaying the irreducible humanity of similar sinners. Like Clooney’s character, I find myself prompted to examine my complicity in the brokenness of my relationships with others, to forgive because I can see myself in them–and to forgive just because. The Descendants seems to be making a heartfelt case that in death, as in life, we’re all the same.